James Fenimore Cooper.

The headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) online

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scribed was at the place where the Leman fairly
enters its eastern horn, and where its shores pos
sess their boldest and finest faces. On the side of
Savoy, the coast was a sublime wall of rocks,
here and there clothed with chestnuts, or indented
with ravines and dark glens, and naked and wild
along the whole line of their giddy summits. The
villages so frequently mentioned, and which have
become celebrated in these later times by the touch
of genius, clung to the uneven declivities, their
lower dwellings laved by the lake, and their upper
confounded with the rugged faces of the moun
tains. Beyond the limits of the Leman, the Alps
shot up into still higher pinnacles, occasionally
showing one of those naked excrescences of gra
nite, which rise for a thousand feet above the rest
of the range a trifle in the stupendous scale of
the vast piles and which, in the language of the
country, are not inaptly termed Dents, from some


fancied and plausible resemblance to human teeth.
The verdant meadows of Noville, Aigle and Bex,
spread for leagues between these snow-capped
barriers, so dwindled to the eye, however, that the
spectator believed that to be a mere bottom, which
was, in truth, a broad and fertile plain. Beyond
these again, came the celebrated pass of St. Mau
rice, where the foaming Rhone dashed between
two abutments of rock, as if anxious to effect its
exit before the superincumbent mountains could
come together, and shut it out for ever from the
inviting basin to which it was hurrying with a
never-ceasing din. Behind this gorge, so cele
brated as the key of the Valais, and even of the
Alps in the time of the conquerors of the world,
the back-ground took a character of holy mystery.
The shades of evening lay thick in that enormous
glen, which was sufficiently large to contain a
sovereign state, and the dark piles of mountains
beyond were seen in a hazy, confused array. The
setting was a grey boundary of rocks, on which
fleecy clouds rested, as if tired with their long and
high flight, and on which the parting day still lin
gered soft and lucid. One cone of dazzling white
towered over all. It resembled a bright stepping-
stone between heaven and earth, the heat of the
hot sun falling innocuously against its sides, like
the cold and pure breast of a virgin repelling those
treacherous sentiments which prove the ruin of a
shining and glorious innocence. Across the sum
mit of this brilliant and cloud-like peak, which
formed the most distant object in the view, ran the
imaginary line that divided Italy from the regions
of the north. Drawing nearer, and holding its
course on the opposite shore, the eye embraced the
range of rampart-like rocks that beetle over Ville-
neuve and Chillon, the latter a snow-white pile that
seemed to rest partly on the land and partly on the


water. On the vast debris of the mountains clus
tered the hamlets of Clarens, Montreux, Chatelard,
and all those other places, since rendered so fa
miliar to the reader of fiction by the vivid pen of
Rousseau. Above the latter village the whole of
the savage and rocky range receded, leaving the
lake-shore to vine-clad cotes that stretch away far
to the west.

This scene, at all times alluring and grand, was
now beheld under its most favorable auspices.
The glare of day had deserted all that belonged to
what might be termed the lower world, leaving in
its stead the mild hues, the pleasing shadows, and
the varying tints of twilight. It is true that a hun
dred chalets dotted the Alps, or those mountain
pasturages which spread themselves a thousand
fathoms above the Leman, on the foundation of
rock that lay like a wall behind Montreux, shining
still with the brightness of a bland even, but all be
low was fast catching the more sombre colors of
the hour.

As the transition from day to night grew more
palpable, the hamlets of Savoy became gray and
hazy, the shades thickened around the bases of the
mountains in a manner to render their forms indis
tinct and massive, and the milder glory of the
scene was transferred to their summits. Seen by
sun-light, these noble heights appear a long range
of naked granite, piled on a foundation of chestnut-
covered hills, and buttressed by a few such salient
spurs as are perhaps necessary to give variety and
agreeable shadows to their acclivities. Their out
lines were now drawn in those waving lines that
the pencil of Raphael would have loved to sketch,
dark, distinct, and appearing to be carved by art.
The inflected and capricious edges of the rocks
stood out in high relief against the back-ground of
pearly sky, resembling so much ebony wrought


into every fantastic curvature that a wild and vivid
fancy could conceive. Of all the wonderful and
imposing sights of this extraordinary region, there
is perhaps none in which there is so exquisite an
admixture of the noble, the beautiful, and the be
witching, as in this view of these natural arabesques
of Savoy, seen at the solemn hour of twilight.

The Baron de Willading and his friends stood
uncovered, in reverence of the sublime picture,
which could only come from the hands of the Crea
tor, and with unalloyed enjoyment of the bland
tranquillity of the hour. Exclamations of pleasure
had escaped them, as the exhibition advanced ; for
the view, like the shifting of scenes, was in a con
stant state of transition under the waning and
changing light, and each had eagerly pointed out
to the others some peculiar charm of the view.
The sight was, in sooth, of a nature to preclude
selfishness, no one catching a glimpse that he did
'not wish to be shared by all. Vevey, their jour
ney, the fleeting minutes, and their disappointment,
were all forgotten in the delight of witnessing this
evening landscape, and the silence was broken on
ly to express those feelings of delight which had
long been uppermost in every bosom.

" I doff my beaver to thy Switzerland, friend
Melchior," cried the Signor Grimaldi, after direct
ing the attention of Adelheid to one of the peaks of
Savoy, of which he had just remarked that it
seemed a spot where an angel might love to light
in his visits to the earth ; " if thou hast much of
this, we of Italy must look to it, or by the shades
of our fathers ! we shall lose our reputation for
natural beauty. How is it young lady ; hast thou
many of these sun-sets at Willading? or, is this,
after all, but an exception to what thou seest in
common as much a matter of astonishment to


thyself, as by San Francesco ! good Marcelli, we
must even own, it is to thee and me !"

Adelheid laughed at the old noble's good-humor
ed rhapsody, but, much as she loved her native
land, she could not pervert the truth by pretending
that the sight was one to be often met with.

"If we have not this, however, we have our
glaciers, our lakes, our cottages, our chalets, our
Oberland, and such glens as have an eternal twi
light of their own."

" Ay, my true-hearted and pretty Swiss, this
is well for thee who wilt affirm that a drop of
thy snow-water is worth a thousand limpid springs,
or thou art not the true child of old Melchior de
Willading ; but it is lost on the cooler head of one
who has seen other lands. Father Xavier, thou
art a neutral, for thy dwelling is on the dividing
ridge between the two countries, and I appeal to
thee to know if these Helvetians have much of this
quality of evening ?"

The worthy monk met the question in the spirit
with which it was asked, for the elasticity of the
air, and the heavenly tranquillity and bewitching
loveliness of the hour, well disposed him to be

" To maintain my character as an impartial
judge," he answered, " I will say that each region
has its own advantages. If Switzerland is the
most wonderful and imposing, Italy is the most
winning. The latter leaves more durable impres
sions and is more fondly cherished. One strikes
the senses, but the other slowly winds its way into
the affections ; and he who has freely vented his
admiration in exclamations and epithets in one,
will, in the end, want language to express all the
secret longings, the fond recollections, the deep
repinings, that he retains for the other."

" Fairly reasoned, friend Melchior, and like an


able umpire, leaving to each his share of conso
lation and vanity. Herr Miiller, dost thou agree
in a decision that gives thy muchvaunted Switzer
land so formidable a rival ? "

" Signore," answered the meek traveller, "I see
enough to admire and love in both, as is always
the fact with that which God hath formed. This
is a glorious world for the happy, and most might
be so, could they summon courage to be innocent."

" The good Augustine will tell thee that this
bears hard on certain points of theology, in which
our common nature is treated with but indifferent
respect. He that would continue innocent must
struggle hard with his propensities."

The stranger was thoughtful, and Sigismund,
whose eye had been earnestly riveted on his face,
thought that it denoted more of peace then usual.

" Signore," rejoined the Herr Miiller, when time
had been given for reflection, " I believe it is good
for us to know unhappiness. He that is permitted
too much of his own will gets to be headstrong,
and, like the overfed bullock, difficult to be man
aged ; whereas, he who lives under the displeasure
of his fellow-creatures is driven to look closely
into himself, and comes, at last, to chasten his
spirit by detecting its faults."

" Art thou a follower of Calvin ?" demanded the
Augustine suddenly, surprised to hear opinions so
healthful in the mouth of a dissenter from the true

" Father, I belong neither to Rome nor to the
religion of Geneva. I am a humble worshipper
of God, and a believer in the blessed mediation of
his holy Son."

" How ! Where dost thou find such sentiments
out of the pale of the church ?"

"In mine own heart. This is my temple, holy
Augustine, and I never enter it without adoration


for its Almighty founder. A cloud was over the
roof of my father at my birth, and I have not been
permitted to mingle much with men ; but the soli
tude of my life has driven me to study my own
nature, which I hope has become none the worse
for the examination. I know I am an unworthy
and sinful man, and I hope others are as much
better than I as their opinions of themselves would
give reason to think."

The words of the Herr Mu'ller, which lost none
of their weight by his unaffected and quiet manner,
excited curiosity. At first, most of the listeners
were disposed to believe him one of those exag
gerated spirits who exalt themselves by a pretended
self-abasement, but his natural, quiet, and thought
ful deportment soon produced a more favorable
opinion. There was a habit of reflection, a retrea t-
ing inward look about his eye, that revealed the
character of one long and truly accustomed to
look more at himself than at others, and which
wrought singularly in his behalf.

" We may not all have these flattering opinions
of ourselves that thy words would seem to imply,
Signor Mu'ller," observed the Genoese, his tone
changing to one better suited to soothe the feelings
of the person addressed, while a shade insensibly
stole over his own venerable features ; " neither
are all at peace that so seem. If it will be any
consolation to thee to know that others are probably
no more happy than thyself, I will add that I have
known much pain, and that, too, amid circum
stances which most would deem fortunate, and
which, I fear", a great majority of mankind might
be disposed to envy."

" I should be base indeed to seek consolation in
such a source ! I do not complain, Signore, though
my whole life has so passed that I can hardly say
that I enjoy it. It is not easy to smile when we


know that all frown upon us ; else could I be con
tent. As it is, I rather feel than repine."

" This is a most singular condition of the mind ;"
whispered Adelheid to young Sigismund; for both
had been deeply attentive listeners to the calm but
strong language of the Herr Miiller. The young
man did not answer, and his fair companion saw,
with surprise, that he was pale, and with difficulty
noticed her remark with a smile.

" The frowns of men, my son," observed the
monk, "are usually reserved for those who offend
its ordinances. The latter may not be always just,
but there is a common sentiment which refuses to
visit innocence, even in the narrow sense in whicli
we understand the word, with undeserved dis

The Herr Miiller looked earnestly at the Au
gustine, and he seemed about to answer ; but,
checking the impulse, he bowed in submission. At
the same time, a wild, painful smile gleamed on
his face.

" I agree with thee, good canon," rejoined the
simple-minded baron : " we are much addicted to
quarrelling with the world, but, after all, when we
look closely into the matter, it will commonly be
found that the cause of our grievances exists in

" Is there no Providence, father ?" exclaimed
Adelheid, a little reproachfully for one of her re
spectful habits and great filial tenderness. " Can
we recall the dead to life, or keep those quick
whom God is pleased to destroy ?"

" Thou hast me, girl ! there is a truth in this
that no bereaved parent can deny !"

This remark produced an embarrassed pause,
during which the Herr Miiller gazed furtively
about him, looking from the face of one to that of
another, as if seeking for some countenance on


which he could rely. But he turned away to the
view of those hills which had been so curiously
wrought by the finger of the Almighty, and seemed
to lose himself in their contemplation.

" This is some spirit that has been bruised by
early indiscretion," said the Signor Grimaldi, in a
low voice, " and whose repentance is strangely
mixed with resignation. I know not whether such
a man is most to be envied or pitied. There is a
fearful mixture of resignation and of suffering in
his air."

" He has not the mien of a stabber or a knave/'
answered the baron. " If he comes truly of the
Miillers of the Emmen Thai, or even of those of
Entlibuch, I should know something of his history.
They are warm burghers, and mostly of fair name.
It is true, that in my youth one of the family got
out of favor with the councils, on account of some
concealment of their lawful claims in the way of
revenue, but the man made an atonement that was
deemed sufficient in amount, and the matter was
forgotten. It is not usual, Herr Miiller, to meet
citizens in our canton who go for neither Rome
nor Calvin."

" It is not usual, mein Herr, to meet men placed
as I am. Neither Rome nor Calvin is sufficient
for me ; I have need of God !"

" I fear thou hast taken life ?"

The stranger bowed, and his face grew livid,
seemingly with the intensity of his own thoughts.
Melchior de Willading so disliked the expression,
that he turned away his eyes in uneasiness. The
other glanced frequently at the forward part of the
bark, and he seemed struggling hard to speak, but,
for some strong reason, unable to effect his pur
pose. Uncovering himself, at length, he said
steadily, as if superior to shame, while he fully felt


the import of his communication, but in a voice
that was cautiously suppressed

" I am Balthazar, of your canton, Herr Baron,
and I pray your powerful succor, should those
untamed spirits on the forecastle come to discover
the truth. My blood hath been made to curdle
to-day whilst listening to their heartless threats
and terrible maledictions. Without this fear, I
should have kept my secret, for God knows I am
not proud of my office !"

The general and sudden surprise, accompanied
as it was by a common movement of aversion,
induced the Signor Grimaldi to demand the reason.

" Thy name is not in much favour apparently,
Herr Miiller, or Herr Balthazar, whichever it is
thy pleasure to be called," observed the Genoese,
casting a quick glance around the circle. " There
is some mystery in it, that to me needs explana

" Signore, I am the headsman of Berne."

Though long schooled in the polished habits of
his high condition, which taught him ordinarily to
repress strong emotions, the Signor Grimaldi could
not conceal the start which this unexpected an
nouncement produced, for he had not escaped the
usual prejudices of men.

" Truly, we have been fortunate in our associate,
Melchior," he said drily, turning without ceremo
ny from the man whose modest, quiet mien had
lately interested him so much, but whose manner
he now took to be assumed, few pausing to in
vestigate the motives of those who are condemned
of opinion : " here has been much excellent and
useful morality thrown away upon a very unworthy
subject !"

The baron received the intelligence of the real
name of their travelling companion with less feel
ing. He had been greatly puzzled to account for


the singular language he had heard, and he found
relief in so brief a solution of the difficulty.

" The pretended name, after all, then, is only a
cloak to conceal the truth ! I knew the Mullers of
the Emmen Thai so well, that I had great difficulty
in fitting the character which the honest man gave
of himself fairly upon any one of them all. But it
is now clear enough, and doubtless Balthazar has
no great reason to be proud of the turn which For
tune has played his family in making them execu

" Is the office hereditary 1" demanded the
Genoese, quickly.

" It is. Thou knowest that we of Berne have
great respect for ancient usages. He that is born
to the Biirgerschaft will die in the exercise of his
rights, and he that is born out of its venerable pale
must be satisfied to live out of it, unless he has gold
or favor. Our institutions are a hint from nature,
which leaves men as they are created, preserving
the order and harmony of society by venerable
and well-defined laws, as is wise and necessary.
In nature, he that is born strong remains strong,
and he that has little force must be content with
his feebleness."

The Signer Grimaldi looked like one who felt

" Art thou, in truth, an hereditary executioner?"
he asked, addressing Balthazar himself.

" Signore, I am : else would hand of mine have
never taken life. 'Tis a hard duty to perform,
even under the obligations and penalties of the
law ; otherwise, it were accursed !"

" Thy fathers deemed it a privilege !"

" We suffer for their error : Signore, the sins of
the fathers, in our case, have indeed been visited
on the children to the latest generations."

The countenance of the Genoese grew brighter,


and his voice resumed the polished tones in which
he usually spoke.

" Here has been some injustice of a certainty,"
he said, " or one of thy appearance would not be
found in this cruel position. Depend on our au
thority to protect thee, should the danger thou
seemest to apprehend really occur. Still the laws
must be respected, though not always of the rigid
impartiality that we might wish. Thou hast own
ed the imperfection of human nature, and it is not
wonderful that its work should have flaws."

" I complain not now of the usage, which to me
has become habit, but I dread the untamed fury of
these ignorant and credulous men, who have taken
a wild fancy that my presence might bring a curse
upon the bark."

There are accidental situations which contain
more healthful morals than can be drawn from a
thousand ingenious and plausible homilies, and in
which facts, in their naked simplicity, are far more
eloquent than any meaning that can be conveyed
by words. Such was the case with this meek and
unexpected appeal of Balthazar. All who heard
him saw his situation under very different colors
from those in which it would have been regarded
had the subject presented itself under ordinary cir
cumstances. A common and painful sentiment at
tested strongly against the oppression that had giv
en birth to his wrongs,' and the good Melchior de
Willading himself wondered how a case of this
striking injustice could have arisen under the laws
of Berne.



Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks,
A thousand men that fishes gnawed upon ;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.

Richard III.

The flitting twilight was now on the wane, and
the shades of evening were gathering fast over
the deep basin of the lake. The figure of Maso,
as he continued to pace his elevated platform, was
drawn dark and distinct against the southern sky,
in which some of the last rays of the sun still lin
gered, but objects on both shores were getting to
be confounded with the shapeless masses of the
mountains. Here and there a pale star peeped
out, though most of the vault that stretched across
the confined horizon was shut in by dusky clouds.
A streak of dull, unnatural light was seen in the
quarter which lay above the meadows of the
Rhone, and nearly in a direction with the peak of
Mont Blanc, which, though not visible from this
portion of the Leman, was known to lie behind the
ramparts of Savoy, like a monarch of the hills en
trenched in his citadel of rocks and ice.

The change, the lateness of the hour, and the
unpleasant reflections left by the short dialogue
with Balthazar, produced a strong and common
desire to see the end of a navigation that was be
ginning to be irksome. Those objects which had
lately yielded so much and so pure a delight were
now 7 getting to be black and menacing, and the
very sublimity of the scale on which Nature had
here thrown together her elements was an addi-



tional source of uncertainty and alarm. Those
fairy-like, softly-delineated, natural arabesques,
which had so lately been dwelt upon with rapture,
were now converted into dreary crags that seem
ed to beetle above the helpless bark, giving un
pleasant admonitions of the savage and inhospita
ble properties of their iron-bound bases, which
were known to prove destructive to all who were
cast against them while the elements were in dis

These changes in the character of the scene,
which in some respects began to take the aspect
of omens, were uneasily witnessed by all in the
stern of the bark, though the careless laughter, the
rude joke, and the noisy cries, which from time to
time arose on the forecastle, sufficiently showed
that the careless spirits it held were still indulging
in the coarse enjoyments most suited to their hab
its. One individual, however, was seen stealing
from the crowd, and establishing himself on the
pile of freight, as if he had a mind more addicted
to reflection, and less disposed to unmeaning rev
elry, than most of those whom he had just aban
doned. This was the Westphalian student, who,
wearied with amusements that were below* the
level of his acquirements, and suddenly struck
with the imposing aspect of the lake and the moun
tains, had stolen apart to muse on his distant home
and the beings most dear to him, under an excite
ment that suited those morbid sensibilities which
he had long encouraged by a very subtle metaphys
ical system of philosophy. Until now, Maso
had paced his lofty post with his eye fixed chiefly
on the heavens in the direction of Mont Blanc, oc
casionally turning it, however, over the motionless
bulk of the bark, but when the student placed him
self across his path, he stopped and smiled at the


abstracted air and riveted regard with which the
youth gazed at a star.

" Art thou an astronomer, that thou lookest so
closely at yonder shining world 1" demanded II
Maledetto, with the superiority that the mariner
afloat is wont successfully to assume over the un
happy wight of a landsman, who is very liable to
admit his own impotency on the novel and dan
gerous element : " the astrologer himself would
not study it more deeply."

" This is the hour agreed upon between me and
one that I love to bring the unseen principle of our
spirits together, by communing through" its me

" I have heard of such means of intercourse.
Dost see more than others by reason of such an
assistant ?"

" I see the object which is gazed upon, at this
moment, by kind blue eyes that have often looked
upon me in affection. When we are in a strange
land, and in a fearful situation, such a communion

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 7 of 22)